Checklists can be useful in almost any human endeavor-including the practice of law. In fact, sometimes they might even save the day (or the transaction) by imposing order on potential chaos. Try these ideas for developing checklists for your practice.
Firms of any size can be prepared to bring new employees up to speed quickly—or deal with an unexpected or lengthy employee absence—by developing quick-reference guides for how the various jobs in the firm are done, and by whom.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was one of my favorite books growing up. I especially loved the part where Tom persuades his friends to pay him for the privilege of letting them whitewash his Aunt Polly’s picket fence. You may not be able to get your employees to pay you to do your practice management chores, but you can put them to work to help make your job of training and managing them much easier.
Large firms often have in-house training programs to bring new employees up to speed on how the firm does things. Solos and small firms, on the other hand, seldom do, even though the learning curve for a new employee can be substantial. That’s where a policy and procedures manual, including job descriptions for each job function in the office, comes in very handy indeed. It can be a simple collection of one-or-two page “cheat sheets” outlining individual tasks, or a full-blown manual covering all aspects of firm procedures.
Many small firms don’t even think about creating these manuals because they believe they are just too much work for what they are worth. And the fact is, you probably shouldn’t think about creating one from whole cloth unless you have a lot of free time. Instead, here’s what you do:
• Start by having all current employees outline the major tasks they perform regularly, including the percentage of time each task occupies on a weekly or monthly basis.
• Review the task lists, modify as you think appropriate, and then return them to the employees to fill in the details on how each of the major tasks is done, including the location of any materials, passwords or other information that someone unfamiliar to the job would need to have to carry it out easily and accurately.
• Put all this information into a notebook, and update it yearly, or more frequently as needed, to make sure it stays current with what’s actually being done on a daily basis.
• If you already have written job descriptions for your employees, compare the task lists they’ve prepared to those descriptions. Are people doing what they were originally hired to do? If there are variances, you can then assess whether the job description or the work actually being done should be changed—or if the skills needed for the job have changed, and the person doing it should change, too.
This information can also be used to evaluate whether work is evenly divided among the staff, ways in which those whose duties overlap might work together better, or whether there are overlaps or gaps in responsibility that may lead to dropped tasks and potential malpractice.
So is it worth the bother? Absolutely. Employees can’t remember everything they’re told on the first day of a new job, and even existing employees may have difficulty performing tasks consistently if those tasks are done infrequently. Preparing detailed lists will save you a lot of time (and we all know time is money, especially in small firms) because you won’t have to cover the same ground over and over. Policy and procedures manuals will also prevent mistakes because a new employee will not have to choose between disturbing you or plunging ahead blindly and hoping for the best.
If you’d like some help getting started, try the Law Office Procedures Manual for Solos and Small Firms, 3rd Edition, by Demetrios Dimitriou, and Law Office Policy & Procedures Manual, 5th Edition, by Howard L. Hatoff and Robert C. Wert. Published by the ABA, both come in a notebook with a supporting disc, which makes it a snap to develop a manual customized to your practice.
Laura A. Calloway is Director of the Alabama State Bar’s Practice Management Assistance Program.